In the middle of August I had planned a trip out to Glen Affric one Sunday for one of my bi-annual photographic visits to the Coille Ruigh na Cuileige exclosure there. That was the first fenced area we protected in partnership with Forestry Commission Scotland back in 1990, and every two years since then I’ve been taking some fixed point photography of selected trees there, to visually document the changes as natural regeneration takes place, in the absence of overgrazing by red deer (Cervus elaphus).
In particular, I was looking forward to visiting the ‘Champion’ Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), a healthy no-longer-quite-so-young tree that I’ve been photographing, with myself beside it, since 1992 – a long time before the current trend for selfies became established! However, when I arrived in Glen Affric, the day was quite stormy, with heavy rain falling and blustery, gusting high winds. As I approached the Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin picnic site, where I would leave my car to walk up to the Coille Ruigh site, I saw that the burn nearby, the Allt na Imrich, was a swollen, raging torrent. I went to take some photographs, but it was a real challenge to do so, even with an umbrella to protect my camera, as the wind seemed to gust from all directions, constantly driving raindrops on to the camera’s lens. With some patience, though, I did manage to get a few images, by waiting for the occasional lulls between the gusts.
Here’s some video footage of the burn in full spate:
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However, I realised that if the conditions persisted, there would be no point in me going up to the Coille Ruigh exclosure and attempting to take photographs of myself using the camera’s self timer, as the lens would get covered in raindrops in the 10 second gap between me pressing the shutter and getting in position to be in the photograph myself. I therefore decided to stay in the area near the car park while the weather was so wild, and to wait and see if the conditions eased for photography during the day. It was quite a blustery day, and the intense bursts of heavy, driving rain were interspersed with calmer moments, and during some of those I managed to take few photographs such as this one here, where the brief moments of stillness when the heather (Calluna vulgaris) was motionless contrasted with the rushing water behind.
The power of the water flowing in the burn was quite impressive, especially as I knew how relatively calm the watercourse normally is. At the time of writing this blog, three weeks had gone by, and I had made another visit to the area, when there had been very little water flowing in the Allt na Imrich. It had gone from one extreme to the other, and the water level was lower than normal. Such is the diversity and variety of the conditions in the Caledonian Forest – it is a constantly varying environment, with changes throughout the seasons and due to fluctuations in the weather and climate.
Back on this wet day in the middle of August, though, I wandered in the forest in the rain, passing the time by collecting some chanterelle mushrooms (Cantharellus cibarius) for eating later at home, while I waited for further lulls in the downpours. The rain had certainly brought them out in abundance and I collected enough of the fungi to dry some for use in the winter as well. At least the rain was not constant, and I took advantage of another pause in the precipitation to photograph the trunks of some birch trees (Betula pubescens) that were covered in beard lichens (Usnea sp.) and other arboreal lichens. These epiphytes were all vibrant and flushed with vigour. They were certainly enjoying the rain, as they expand and come more visibly alive when they are fully hydrated like this. By contrast, on dry days the lichens become desiccated and shrivelled, as they seek to retain what moisture they can, until the rain refreshes them again.
The birchwood around the Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin picnic site is full of character, with old trees, lots of hummocks and a lush green ground cover of moss and ferns.
Just to the west of the picnic site there’s a small knoll with a good view over the loch, and a scattering of old Scots pines growing there, amongst the heather and blaeberries (Vaccinium myrtillus). The heather was in full bloom, so I walked up on to the knoll, even though it was more exposed to the wind and the rain. I was hoping for some more dry spells in the weather, and, with patience, I was able to take a few photographs with my camera facing out of the wind, so that the lens didn’t get spattered with raindrops. The purple colour of the heather almost seems to glow in the woodlands on wet days like this …
On one of the hummocks, my attention was drawn by the bright red colour of some leaves. These belonged to a blaeberry plant, and I was surprised to see that they were already quite advanced in their autumn coloration, although it was only the middle of August, and therefore still summer. I surmised that the early colour change of this deciduous shrub species may have been caused by the dry weather we’d had for some weeks previously – a lack of moisture can precipitate the onset of leaf-fall in trees and shrubs some weeks in advance of normal.
There was no lack of moisture this day however, and by this time I’d long since given up any thoughts of going up to photograph the ‘champion’ pine – that would have to wait for another occasion. The opportunities for photography had been quite restricted because of the rain, but I’d enjoyed the day nevertheless. It had been what I sometimes refer to as a ‘John Muir’ day. These are so-called because when I’m out on a wild and elemental day, I think of the famous Scots-born conservationist who lived in the USA, and who loved to wander in the woods on wild and stormy days, to feel the full spectrum of experiences that Nature offers.
If ever I’m in doubt about going out in stormy conditions like this, I ask myself, ‘What would John Muir have done on a day like this?’, and the answer is clear. So it was on this day, and I felt refreshed and reinvigorated by the wind and the rain as I headed back towards my car. When I was nearly there though, I stopped to look at some lichens I had seen, growing on a moss-covered boulder beside the road. These were one of the Cladonia lichens, with cup-shaped forms called podetia and red structures called apothecia on top of them. The apothecia release the spores of the fungal partner in the lichen symbiosis, and several species in the genus Cladonia produce these scarlet versions of them. I suspected they were a species called Cladonia diversa, but when I consulted John Douglass, the lichenologist who helps me with identifications, he replied that there are several very similar species and it would be more accurate to describe them as Cladonia coccifera agg. – an aggregation of several species that includes Cladonia diversa.
The lichens were in full flourish and radiant in colour because of the rain. They were growing amongst a patch of glittering wood-moss (Hylocomium splendens), the commonest moss in the Caledonian Forest, and the combination of the two provided the opportunity for some nice photographs to finish the day with.